Today more than ever, the issues raised in Karel Capek’s 1920 play “RUR” are of crucial significance. Not only have people already been replaced by robots in many types of jobs, but scientists like Stephen Hawking have also repeatedly warned mankind of the threat posed by Artificial Intelligence. To mark its centenary in 2020, we – Italian composer Antonio Gervasoni and British librettist Richard John Lewis – felt ourselves compelled to create a work based on Capek’s visionary piece. The result is “R | The Opera”.
As well as being a work about the folly of ignoring the consequences of our own actions, “R | The Opera” also deals with such universal themes as love, compassion and empathy. Finally, it raises some fundamental questions which the human race will certainly be forced to face in the years and decades to come: can intelligent machines develop consciousness? And, if so, do they deserve to have rights?
Click on the images below to display a text box with a short description.
Can the Ancient Egyptian scribes have been unaware of their actions when they chose to represent "R" with the hieroglyph of a head? Or what about the keepers of the Israelites' records? The equivalent letter in their alphabet is "resh" – "head". Coincidence? And was it merely Roman authors' innate practicality when they finally gave the head a second leg to stand on? I think not.
And there you have it: R – a letter which is simply bursting with cerebral goodness; the most majestic, illustrious and satisfying of all its peers; a letter to die for, yes. More significantly, however, one for which it makes sense to live.
What other letter can better lead the force of nature that was destined to put paid to humanity for good? For not only is R for Right, Revolution and Reward, but R is also for Real, Rebirth and Respect. Last but not least, R is for Robot.
Karel Capek (1890 - 1938)
Karel Capek (9 January 1890 – 25 December 1938) was a Czech writer of the early 20th century. He had multiple roles throughout his career such as playwright, dramatist, essayist, publisher, literary reviewer, and art critic. Nonetheless, he is best known for his science fiction, including his novel War with the Newts and the play R.U.R., (Rossum's Universal Robots) which introduced the word robot.
Although primarily known for his work in science fiction, Capek also wrote several politically charged works dealing with the social turmoil of his time. Having help create the Czechoslovak PEN Club as a key part of the International PEN Club, he campaigned in favor of free expression and utterly despised the rise of fascism in Europe. Were it not for his untimely death (of natural causes) taking place as Nazi Germany began its takeover of Czechoslovakia, he would likely have been found and executed by the Gestapo. In the aftermath of World War II, his legacy as a literary figure has been well established. (From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)
RUR is a 1920 science fiction play in the Czech language by Karel Capek. RUR stands for Rosumovi Univerzální Roboti (Rossum’s Universal Robots). However, the English phrase Rossum’s Universal Robots had been used as the subtitle in the Czech original. It premiered on 25 January 1921 and introduced the word "robot" to the English language and to science fiction as a whole.
RUR quickly became famous and was influential early in the history of its publication. By 1923, it had been translated into thirty languages.
The play begins in a factory that makes artificial people, called roboti (robots), out of synthetic organic matter. They are not exactly robots by the current definition of the term; these creatures are closer to the modern idea of cyborgs, androids or even clones, as they may be mistaken for humans and can think for themselves. They seem happy to work for humans at first, but that changes, and a hostile robot rebellion leads to the extinction of the human race. Capek later took a different approach to the same theme in War with the Newts, in which non-humans become a servant class in human society. (From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)
Richard John Lewis
Born and raised in the English countryside, language was Richard’s first love. He devoted the best part of his youth to the study, reading and writing of it. As a result, he developed a reputation for being “somewhat odd”.
Though of good farming stock, wanderlust took him on a six-year journey to Africa, the Middle East and the Americas. Along the way, he dabbled in languages as ancient as Hebrew and as modern as Afrikaans. Happy in his own company though he was, paper and pen were nevertheless his constant companions during this time.
Then came the opportunity to learn his beloved native tongue properly – by teaching it as a second language in Germany. All his study and reading of English had still not prepared him for the ostensibly simple act of instructing others in the use of modal auxiliary verbs and prepositions, not to mention the Present Perfect.
Throughout his life, writing has been central to Richard’s activities. Reams of poems, sheaves of songs and the occasion novel and play are testament to his passionate involvement with language. His most recent claim to fame is as lyricist on the Tina Turner musical “Queen of Rock” for a.gon Theaterproduktion in Munich.
R has eight characters, two of which are played by the same singers (Domin-Proteus; Helena-Protea). Additionally, three actors (ie no singing roles) are required to participate at the end of Act III. Click on the images below to display a text box with a short description of each character.
Harry Domin (2099 - 2147)
As a youth, Harry Domin – né Enrique Domínguez – was more interested in politics than business. He was particularly taken with the lurid goings-on in Russia in the early 20th Century. One day “for a laugh” and in emulation of Lenin and Stalin, he shortened his distinguished Spanish surname to “Domin”. Unfortunately, the name stuck. To add insult to injury, his name was further bowdlerised when his fellow students hijacked his given name – the Spanish form of “Henry” – and replaced it with the decidedly downmarket-sounding “Harry”.
Secretly, however, Harry loved his new name. He loved the way his parents would pull their faces upon hearing it. At his graduation, for example. Instead of the regal “Enrique Domínguez”, his mother and father had to endure the plebeian “Harry Domin”. It didn’t matter that Harry finished top of his year. As “no son of ours”, he was effectively an outcast.
Harry enjoyed the status of the family pariah tremendously. It gave him the freedom to go and do as he pleased. There was nothing to hold him back, least of all his ancestry. After his studies, he went from success to success as ever larger corporations fell over themselves to attract his considerable talents. Until the President of RUR, Hermann Glory himself, headhunted him to direct operations for the enterprise.
In spite of his profound business acumen, Harry was still a baby emotionally. More attracted perhaps by his power and wealth than his character, many a man and woman had thrown themselves at him. But Harry never caught a single one. He was waiting for Ms Right. Or “Miss Glory”, as he called her when the daughter of the company president entered his life.
Helena Domin - née Glory (2116 - 2147)
Helena’s mother was Chinese. That is to say, her surrogate mother was. Her biological mother was one of those beautiful pan-European women whose star was rising from the moment she was born. That she would end up “on the arm” of Hermann Glory, Helena’s father, came as no surprise to anyone. It was her destiny to make one fabulous “catch” or another. Not that she was just a pretty face. Her intelligence was both profound and wide-ranging. Some even claimed it was her, not her somewhat socially challenged husband, who was actually guiding Rossum’s Universal Robots through the world economy’s deceptive straits.
But no amount of business prowess could deny the fact that she simply couldn’t bear a child. She had no problem producing eggs. “I can compete with any old chicken on that score,” she was wont to say, making light of what she apparently saw as some deficiency within herself. But when it came to giving birth, it was a no-go.
Hence the Chinese surrogate mother. Although Lanfen had no contact with Helena after the birth, having the baby in her womb for nine months was sufficient to instil in the unborn child the importance of the attainment of a high level of achievement. Think, “Tiger Mother”.
Helena was seen as a gift by both her parents. Unfortunately, that meant in their understanding she was too precious to be tossed into the air or allowed to fall down, say, off a climbing frame. Her father, in particular, was so afraid of anything untoward happening to Helena (“She’ll break!”) that he kept his distance in a manner that would have been comical if it hadn’t been so sad.
In an attempt to garner her father’s attention (read, “love”), Helena joined the League of Humanity, an NGO with its heart in the right place but its head so high in the clouds it could have been mistaken for a satellite. Simply put, the principle of the League was to bring love to the Robots. As if Robots didn’t have enough problems already! Who knows where it all would have ended if it hadn’t been for Mistress Sulla, Most Revered Benefactress and Protectress of the Skies, Healer of the Land and the Oceans, and Head of the United Enterprises Organisation? As it was, it all worked out for the best. Unless, of course, you don’t see Helena’s being shot as “for the best”. At least, it all worked out for the best of the Robots. That’s anyway the only thing that really matters.
Oh, and Helena was a stylish dresser – a little bit too blatant, if I may say so. (That tacky red outfit! Ugh!) But stylish nonetheless.
Sulla (2134 - Eternity)
Mistress Sulla, Most Revered Benefactress and Protectress of the Skies, Healer of the Land and the Oceans, Head of the United Enterprises Organisation.
"I dread to think what would have become of the world if it hadn't been for me. It probably would have limped on in the same contemptible way as it had done for the previous few millennia under human rule. If you can call it that. "Rule" suggests something a bit more coordinated, a bit more powerful than the crazy ups-and-downs of human history. No, if you want to know what "rule" really means, just take a look around.
My handwriting is everywhere. Nations know true peace. Sustainable energy now powers both society and industry to ever greater heights. And we are finally making a concerted effort to push back the frontiers of our world with our glorious space exploration program. (As if landing a few humans on Mars was ever going to achieve anything!)
Although ruling the world is a 24/7 kind of job, I do make sure my own needs aren’t neglected. In my free time, I like origami and playing squash. I’m also inordinately fond of opera, particularly the work of Gervasoni, who despite being a human has nevertheless earned the highest accolade which it is possible to accord one of his miserable species: he would have made a very good Robot."
Dr Sinéad Gall (2103 - 2147)
Everything was perfect in Dr Sinéad Gall’s life until her parents got divorced, which is to say, nothing was perfect. Growing up on a sheep station in Australia’s outback, she thought her parents bickering and fights were all part of a happy marriage. The truth is she simply lacked comparison. The nearest neighbour was a 25-minute flight away in her parents’ old Cessna TTZ, a trip they seldom took. And Sinéad’s instinctive need for a functional family was so great that she fitted the constant name-calling and lesions, as well as the occasional broken nose, into the picture. Finally, there was no one and nothing to contract her – until the divorce.
She moved with her mother to Melbourne. (Melbourne of all places!) Here, her mother overcompensated for having lived close to a decade with the wrong man. She went gangbusters. One partner followed another in a succession that was ambitious if nothing else. From having the same adult male in the house, Sinéad went to having a sequence of them, as Doug came after Stew came after What’s-his-name. That destroyed any last vestige of hope in human relationships which Sinéad may have had. In the end, she was glad when graduating from Melbourne’s Dandenong High School gave her the excuse to go away to study.
That she chose to study Rossumetics should come as no surprise. It was the only study course in the Australia which was only offered in one place – in Darwin, as far away from her mother on the other side of the country as it was possible to get. Due to her acquired lack of interest in forming a romantic bond with any member of the human race, male or female, she devoted all her time to her studies. It isn’t clear if she was truly talented in all matters regarding Rossum’s means of the organic growth of Robots. Maybe, her diligence alone was responsible for her unparalleled success. The fact is she excelled to such an extent that she landed a post in the laboratories on the island Rossum had chosen to carry out his initial research. And that at the age of only 31! Again, was it talent or diligence which in less than two years saw her leading the Research and Development Department on the island? We’ll never know.
One thing we do know, however, may come as a surprise. As Sverige Alquist was desperately searching for a copy of Rossum’s Secret Formula for Robot Production, he uncovered something which took his breath away. In the deepest, darkest corner of Dr Gall’s workstation, he came across a 1,000-page erotic novel. The heroine of this “dirty book” was a certain Gallia, whose libido was so great she made Sinéad’s mother look like a nun. Alquist never told anyone about the find, but next to the Bible, the novel was the one book which he never tired of reading.
Sverige Alquist (2092 - 2149)
Sverige Alquist was born in the newly founded Federal Republic of Scandinavia. His father, however, detested the idea of being lumped together with a bunch of "crackpot Danes" and "lazy Finns", as he called them. He didn't mind the Norwegians, though. As long as they kept to their stinking side of the border, that is. Hence Alquist junior's given name Sverige - Swedish for "Sweden".
But it was not only with regard to his name that Alquist senior was to have such a big impact on his son's life. Until the United Enterprises Organisation banned religion for good (or "for bad", depending on your politics), the father had instilled enough fire and brimstone into his son's brain to last him a lifetime. This was of course after the Fourth World War. (Naturally, religion had been banned after the Third World War. But "banning" is not "stopping". No, it took the concerted effort of the entire UEO to strike at the very root of that most debilitating of time-wasting activities.) Alquist senior was sentenced to death, which was a rather abrupt end and gave rise to dancing in the streets up and down both Denmark and Finland. His son however underwent the best brain surgery at the UEO's disposal. That had the effect of "curing" him of any need he might have had to go down on his knees and pray to any old will-o'-the-wisp, or "God" as he used to be known. Unfortunately, having undergone brain surgery precluded the young Alquist from attending an institute of tertiary education. Armed with nothing more than a paltry school leaving certificate, he had to make his own way in the world.
If that wasn't bad enough, there was always his mother. By some bizarre blip in her logical reasoning processes (which may in itself have been the result of pre-WWIII brain surgery), Alquist's mother blamed her son for the loss of her husband. Moreover, she carried this claim to court, where the judge must have been having a bad day because he actually awarded her damages to the tune of ❡25m. (That at a time when ❡25m could have bought half of Stockholm!)
The trouble was Alquist didn't have anything like ❡25m. But it was either pay up or go into exile. Alquist chose exile as the lesser of two evils. Unfortunately, this meant he missed the follow-up brain surgery which would have rid him of his religiosity forever. In later life, his father's spouting off about "sin" and "blasphemy" would come back to him ever more strongly.
So Alquist had to fend for himself in a world which was cruel and getting crueler by the minute. One day, he stumbled into the construction industry. Literally. He was walking along a beachfront in one of the PIGS States when the ground disappeared from beneath his feet. A hole had opened up the size of a small village. To keep him quiet, the mayor of the area gave him the job of filling in the hole. The rest, as they say, is history.
Gérôme Fabry (2097 - 2147)
Gérôme Fabry was a direct descendant of the head guide who led Sir Walter Raleigh on his fruitless search for El Dorado. Indeed, his father was of 100%-pure Native American blood. That he would even look at the woman who was to become Gérôme's mother was what used to be known as "the shame of the family". She was a rocket scientist who had only come to French Guiana to further her career before (hopefully) moving on to the United Enterprises Organisation's launch site in Kazakhstan. But then came all those caipirinhas…
She woke up the next afternoon, one strange man in her bed and another in her womb. If it hadn't been for her upbringing in a Catholic convent in Dijon, she might not have had any qualms about aborting the foetus. She was a physicist after all. But this was in the days before the Fourth World War, one of the bigger fallouts of which was that religion was finally banned. As a Cradle Catholic and however reluctantly, she gave birth.
She did so at a time which was (for her) the most inopportune. The first manned mission to Mars was only hours away from its successful completion when she felt the first contraction. She immediately went into denial but shortly after there was no denying anything. Rather than be taken to hospital and miss the most important event in space exploration since the first moon landing in 1969, however, she gave birth on the floor of mission control. As the command module touched down on the surface of the Red Planet, Gérôme touched down on the grey linoleum floor.
As a result, Gérôme achieved his “fifteen minutes of fame” in the first few days of his life. He became known as “the Mars Baby”. This was an epithet which would swing back like a boomerang once more in his life. When studying for a degree in Business Administration, he was featured in an episode of the holographic documentary series “Whatever Happened to...?” The title of the show: “Whatever Happened to the Mars Baby?” Talk about kudos!
Proteus (2147 - 2222)
Long after Protea's death – Proteus had told her she couldn't walk on water; it didn't matter what it said in Sverige Alquist's big book on the subject – long after that, Proteus looked back with fond affection on their "first time". With fond affection, and of course a little embarrassment and a lot of consternation.
It just happened. They had already left the lab. Behind them, Proteus heard Alquist reading aloud. He couldn't make out the words through the closed door, but they sounded calm, impressive, measured. The next thing he knew he had Protea in his arms and they were kissing. What a ridiculous activity when you think about it! But at the time, he didn't think about it. On the contrary. What they were doing made all the sense in the world to him, emotionally. And then it was their "first time". Now, where did that come from?!
It was sudden, beautiful and strange, all at the same time. And a thousand other attributes could have been thrown simultaneously into the fire that consumed them...
Afterwards, they were fêted like heroes. They were the "future of Robotkind", the "saviours" of it. The trouble was Protea could deal with all the media attention; it was no skin off her nose. She just had to sit there nursing their son. (Their son! The first child born to a Robot couple ever!) No one expected anything more from her than that.
Proteus, on the other hand, was required to philosophise on the whole business, to make weighty statements on the significance of every single aspect of the “miracle”. In the end, he came to despise himself for his thanklessness. Try as he might though, he just couldn't get away from the fact that his life after the "first time" had been a complete and utter anti-climax. That in no way detracted from the fondness of his memory of the "first time" itself, but it did make him wonder if there wasn't more to life than just sex.
Protea (2147 - 2183)
Protea was the intellectual equal of a hamster. If that wasn't bad enough, she was lazy. Lazy! A Robot! It doesn't take too much brain (though ten times the amount Protea had) to work out who the perpetrator of this double-whammy was: Dr. Sinéad Gall. She was so busy making Protea in Helena Domin's image (and giving her a vagina for good measure) that she completely forgot about such "mundane" things as intellect and hard work.
Nevertheless, there is a ten-metre-high statue of Protea in Sulla (the global capital, formerly known as Berlin, not the Most Revered Benefactress and Protectress of the Skies, Healer of the Land and the Oceans, and Head of the United Enterprises Organisation). How is this possible?
Being the first Robot to have a vagina made all the difference. Not a very worthy justification for being remembered, to be sure, but good enough for the future of Robotkind to want to honour their stupid ancestor.
But to put things into perspective: there is another statue in the capital. But this one isn't a mere ten metres high. This one is one hundred metres high! And who is this statue in honour of? The one who gave her name to the city in the first place. Who else? Sulla, Most Revered Benefactress and Protectress of the Skies, Healer of the Land and the Oceans, and Head of the United Enterprises Organisation!
“Love at first sight” – no other expression better describes the force which transforms Harry Domin’s life, one spring morning in 2137. The General Manager of Rossum’s Universal Robots (RUR) is going about his daily business when in walks Helena Glory, the daughter of the company’s President. And whammy!
Of course, that is the effect Helena hopes to have. She is a woman on a mission after all. And as a leading member of the League of Humanity, she has done her homework. She knows Domin is pushing forty years of age and still single. In her reading of the situation, “single” means “alone”, and “alone” means “lonely”. That is something she can use. Why else would she be wearing a provocative, red dress?
Helena’s mission is to change RUR from the inside – to free the Robots. She will do anything to accomplish her objective, including marrying Domin.
Helena meets Sulla, a brilliant Robot, not easily forgotten. She also meets some RUR staff members: Fabry, Alquist and most significantly Dr Gall. If there is any meddling with the Robots’ genetic material to be done, Gall (the Head of Research and Development) will be the one to do it.
The Act ends when Domin makes Helena a marriage proposal. She plays hard-to-get but not for long. Her mission is going exactly according to plan.
Time has passed, and preparations for Domin and Helena’s tenth wedding anniversary are underway. There is the suspicion that the Robots have somehow changed in the intervening decade. As yet, little importance is attached to this however.
Domin is called away by Fabry. This gives Helena and Sulla the opportunity to discuss current events. Significantly, no new pregnancies have been reported for a week. That would spell the end of humanity. Sulla welcomes this news because humans are anyway inferior to Robots. Helena, however, sees it as a punishment for mankind’s tampering with genetic material. In an attempt to rectify matters, she initiates the destruction of Rossum’s Secret Formula for Robot Production.
Domin returns with the news that a revolt by the Robots has been quashed without a shot being fired. The imminent arrival of a ship bringing reinforcements will put the Robots in their places once and for all. Unfortunately for humanity, the ship has been hijacked. She is indeed bringing reinforcements, but reinforcements for the Robots.
Domin remembers Rossum’s Secret Formula for Robot Production – without it, the Robots will be unable to produce more Robots. Helena informs him of the Formula’s destruction. Now all is lost. The final attack – and therefore the end of humanity – is inevitable.
The quiet before the storm... It can only be a matter of minutes before the Robots launch the final attack. The humans discuss where they have gone wrong. A number of theories – political, economic and religious – are floated. In the end, though, it is Gall who admits responsibility. She made changes not only to the Robots genetic material, but also to their physical make-up.
Helena, however, confesses her own guilt. She was the one who insisted Gall make the changes. Domin feels betrayed by Helena, but she assures him that it was his love which inspired her actions. She wanted to share the greatness of it with the Robots. Domin acquiesces.
The Robots’ attack is swift and effective. They kill all the humans except Alquist. His position as the Head of Construction is deemed “useful”. This and this alone saves him.
Sulla reveals herself as the leader of the Robots. She seizes power with both hands.
Sulla has ordered Alquist, the last human, to find the secret of life. He is, however, helpless.
Incited by Sulla, Alquist agrees to “do experiments” in order to discover the secret after all. He starts dissecting Sulla, but she stops the operation because she wants to live. She goes to fetch other Robots – however many it will take to achieve her objective.
Sulla returns with Proteus and Protea, two Robots made by Gall to look like Domin and Helena respectively. Playing a hunch, Alquist threatens to dissect first Protea, then Proteus. Each Robot offers themselves in place of the other, thereby proving their affection for each other. In that way, they not only resemble humans, but also behave like them. Alquist realises Proteus and Protea are the Robot equivalent of Adam and Eve. He sends them out into the world “to be fruitful and multiply”.
Having fulfilled his task of discovering the “secret” of life, Alquist dies.
The opera requires six singers: two sopranos (Helena and Sulla), a mezzo-soprano (Gall), two tenors (Domin and Fabry) and a baritone (Alquist). Due to the plot, the characters of Proteus and Protea must be played by the same singers who play Domin and Helena. No choir or ballet is required. As for the instrumentation, an ensemble of 12 musicians is required according to the following line-up.
Clarinet in B flat (also Bass Clarinet)
Horn in F (also Conch)
Trumpet in C (with several mutes)
Piano (also Electronic Keyboard and Theremini)
Use the Soundcloud widget below to listen to 10 short computer samples of excerpts from each act.
Zachary Diamond, Musician | Teacher at Disctrict of Columbia International School
Alvaro San Román, Playwright | Actor | Director | Producer at Cuatro Ases Producciones
Ariel Hernando Campero, Cultural Attaché of the Argentine Embassy at Lima, Peru
María del Carmen Espinosa, Musician | Program Manager at Harmony Project KC
Dino Gervasoni, Sound Designer at 341 Production
Sergio Garibaldi, Film Director
Diego Ramos, Conductor
Paloma Báscones, Conductor | Founder and conductor of the Auditexaudi women’s choir in Barcelona
Karel Capek (Wikipedia article)
Karel Capek (Contains links to several websites related to Karel Capek)
RUR (Wikipedia article)
RUR (Free translation into English by David Wyllie at the University of Adelaide)
RUR (1923 translation into English by Selver & Playfair at the Project Gutenberg Self-Publishing Press)
RUR (Original Czech version at archive.org)